Writing about an urban planning experiment proposed in 1898 in England, author Jane Jacobs, who died last week at age 89, declared: “As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.”
That quotation, printed in her acclaimed 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” summarized her thinking. Jacobs was an advocate for cities, for restoring the life to them and making them into vibrant, livable places. But she was primarily an advocate for the ability of individuals rather than central planners to make decisions about their own lives. Great cities do not come from above, but are built at the street level, by the people who live in the neighborhoods.
Jacobs tussled with Robert Moses, the famed New York City planner who, in the 1960s, epitomized the heavy-handed planning of the time. Then, planners in most cities wanted to build huge, monumental structures, blast freeways through the hearts of cities, create towering public housing projects and massive parks. That urban-planning idea is now correctly derided — in no small part because of Jacobs’ work — for demolishing neighborhoods and imposing a bureaucratic vision on the populace.
In “Death and Life,” she wrote about a housing project in East Harlem, N.Y., that was the rage among city officials and planners at the time. But she interviewed the poor tenants there, and they loathed the place. Why? Because the planners bulldozed a functioning neighborhood to make way for the structure. They eliminated the coffee shop and newsstand and other crucial parts of the neighborhood. They replaced small houses with characterless apartments. They imposed a vision from the top that did not consider the preferences and aspirations of those who lived there.
“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served,” she wrote.
She stuck to her defense of individualism against the designs of planners until her death. Jacobs filed a brief in 2004 with the U.S. Supreme Court defending property owners against eminent-domain abuse in the Kelo v. City of New London (Conn.) case. “(P)eople who get marked with the planners’ hex signs are pushed about, expropriated, and uprooted much as if they were the subjects of a conquering power,” she wrote.“Thousands upon thousands of small businesses are destroyed. … Whole communities are torn apart and sown to the winds with a reaping of cynicism, resentment and despair that must be seen to be believed.”
Too bad the justices didn’t listen to her wise words.
Most planners are now influenced by ideas such as the New Urbanism, which promote vibrant cities, and therefore profess admiration for Jacobs. But these planners now use eminent domain to achieve their ends and use the same “we know it all” top-down planning techniques on cities that Jacobs despised.
Yes, she is rightly remembered as an advocate for compact cities, but she mainly should be remembered as a feisty and articulate advocate for individualism and freedom.